If you told the people behind "Ice Age" or "Shrek" how computer animation is done in Denmark, they would think you were putting them on. At a budget of less than two million euros, "Journey to Saturn" is almost laughably cheap by Hollywood standards; a 90-minute animated film made for the price of a medium-sized bag of peanuts.
"Danish humour has a lot fewer one-liners than American humour. Danish humour is more about winding things up and watching them go." Craig Frank
Nonetheless, A. Film in Copenhagen churns out 45 seconds of finished animation a week, an almost staggering output in a world where three seconds of finished film a week is a not-unusual production pace. This spring, they are forging ahead full steam on Denmark’s most ambitious computer-animated feature to date. Actually, without competition, the most ambitious ever. Granted, only one other 3D animated feature was ever made in Denmark. But still!
"Journey to Saturn" is the story of a crew of beerchugging Danish astronauts, so-called Daneonauts, dispatched to Saturn in a fit of greed and nationalistic overreaching. Carrying a cargo of essentials – bottle openers, dildos, bad jokes and Moon Boots – they stumble into one outrageous spacecapade after another, ramming a vicious space monster and even reaching the Gates of Heaven. Danish folk wit has always been exceedingly relaxed about Pearly Gatekeeper Saint Peter, pictured here as a bouncer at a heavenly corner bar.
While broadly aimed, the film is still light-years away from the typical computer animation formula of funny animals and ironic pop culture references. Be that as it may, there is at least one American who does not scoff at the project. The film is directed by an American, Craig Frank, with two youthful Danish co-directors, Thorbjørn Christoffersen and Kresten Vestbjerg Andersen.
"Journey to Saturn" takes off from a classic Danish comic book from the seventies that is almost too Danish to be true. Even so, it was Frank, the 'foreign worker', who went to bat for the idea of adapting the book.
"I read "Journey to Saturn" a few years ago and just thought, 'Fuck, that's so cool!'" the American director says. Hailing from St. Louis, Missouri, Frank has lived and worked in Denmark for 17 years. He is married to a Danish woman with whom he has twins. By a roundabout route – Frank has a degree in art history from Columbia University and a background in painting, drawing and advertising – he ended up in the wonderful world of animation, Danish style.
"I'm a seventies guy," Frank says. "I read a lot of underground comics in the States and I could tell that Saturn's style was very inspired by "The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers" and Robert Crumb. But the story noodled around in a whole other orbit. I was crazy about the idea of this little country going out and showing the big boys what they're made of but fuck everything up, because they happen to insult some aliens! To me, it was obvious this was what we should do after "Terkel in Trouble"."'
"Terkel in Trouble", A. Film's first feature-length 3D animated project, was an ironic and blunt comedy about schoolyard bullying, boozing, steel-pipe wielding and other hijinks. They developed the technique as they went along. The budget was low, and the youthful computer whizzes Thorbjørn and Kresten learned by doing.
"Terkel in Trouble" was a huge hit in Denmark, so launching a new project as fast as possible seemed the obvious way to go. After some wrangling over the rights, Frank got his way. Hard disks were booted and soon spaceship engines were gunning, too, at Denmark's cartoon counterpart to Cape Kennedy: Cape Kurt, named after the ruthless businessman Kurt Maj, the expedition's financial backer.
The runway was cleared for blastoff of the project, which Frank jokingly calls an "epic movie with a very small piggybank".
"Journey to Saturn". Framegrab
THE MAN BEHIND THE STORY
"Journey to Saturn", the Danish comic book, is from 1977. In his all-too brief career, the cartoonist Claus Deleuran penned a fistful of good-atured, anarchic and bitingly satirical comic book gems steeped in the left-wing political scene of the day. His black and white strips were totally laid-back, teeming myriad hilarious eyeball kicks. "Journey to Saturn", one of the best and most popular of his books, spoofs the Danish dreams of empire. The superpowers usually have space to themselves – but a happy-go-lucky attitude, home-grown ingenuity and, better not forget, a caseof beer will get you far. Especially, when throwing in a notoriously lax view of authority. A gaggle of drunken, horny Danes under the command of a rigid military man, Anders Skrydsbøl, journey into space, facing down perils of all sorts and even saying hello to no less a deity than Hippie Jesus himself.
OLD COMIC BOOK, NEW TECHNOLOGY
Bringing in trendsetting Danish director Nikolaj Arcel and up-and-coming young screenwriter Rasmus Heisterberg to co-write put the script in the best possible hands. The story is more linear now and Deleuran's sprawling cast of characters has been whittled down. A supporting character in the comic, Per, has been promoted to leading man. His and the other voices are mouthed by some of Denmark's hottest comedians.
Technically, "Journey to Saturn" builds on the lessons learned from the pioneering work on "Terkel in Trouble". Visually, the new look is a lot more refined and much less puppet-like than Terkel, which could almost be characterized as digital claymation. Lighting is a special concern. And A. Film, like Pixar, has deliberately been playing around with coloured, instead of black, shadows. To boot, Kresten has invented a special character generator, a technique that makes it possible to do crowds by giving each character individual features. There are plenty of occasions for that in Journey to Saturn. The film’s central plot involves 250 characters and calls for a lot of crowd scenes.
"This is a lot more sophisticated, especially in terms of the gestures," Frank says.
The production follows certain basic guidelines. As a rule, Craig, Thorbjørn and Kresten do not let a single production day pass without sneaking at least one little extra joke into a scene.
Are we dealing with a special Danish brand of humour? A logical question to ask an American who seems to have caught the undeniably very Danish tone of Deleuran's comics.
"To me, it's a singularly relaxed way of reacting to something very dramatic and drastic happening by popping open a brew and going, 'Oh, it'll be fine.' That's a very Danish thing," Frank says.
"Otherwise, I think Danish and British humour are actually very closely related," Frank says. "Both deal in irony and sarcasm. The same goes for the famous Danish Jantelov (10 variations on 'Don't think you are better than anyone else', ed.). I think I more or less grew up with that! We were six brothers in my house, and all I ever heard was my mother going, ‘You think you’re so special. Don't you believe it!'
"So, sarcasm and irony is where I'm coming from. On the other hand, Danish humour has a lot fewer one-liners than American humour. Danish humour is more about winding things up and watching them go. And so is the humour in this film," Frank says.
"Journey to Saturn". Framegrab
BOYS WORKING LIKE MEN
The small rooms at A. Film are humming with activity, big kids guzzling cola and busting each other's chops. On computer monitors, character details are turned and tweaked to get the right texture, expressions and gestures. How does light fall on Saturn? Clearly a case for drawing on your imagination. But more down-to-earth questions stir the mind, as well. In computer animation, how do you make a heavy-set guy look really hefty? A lot of things that are obvious and simple in real life call for advanced technical inquisitiveness in the digital realm.
The easy, upbeat mood masks the intense concentration of the young animators working six to a room. They are busy. They have a variety of deadlines to meet up to the planned release in late September. The visuals are supposed to be finished in May. Then comes the sound, score and mixing which will last into June. For now, the studio – a quaint Danish mix of Pixar and NASA – is on schedule.
The countdown has begun to what, in more ways than one, is an unusual Danish journey in time and space – both deep space and cyberspace. Let's hope they never run out of beer or lame jokes in either space: to a Dane, that would be a cosmic disaster of cataclysmic proportions!